Legal Education Model: Community of Inquiry

In the classroom, I like to think of myself as a guide, not as an authoritarian, all-knowing, fountain of knowledge to be revered. I learn with my students every day; as I help them realize new skills and how to self-teach, I find new realizations for myself. I’ve always called it a collaborative philosophy, but it has a name, so I recently learned. Community of Inquiry.

Primarily inspired by online learning, the Community of Inquiry model emerged over the last couple of decades and is based on a social-constructivist philosophy, influenced by John Dewey, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky  Though there are differences between each of these philosophers’ education theories, they were aligned with the concept of education as a process involving social and personal dimensions. CoI, a collaborative-constructivist theory, calls upon the educational institution, faculty, student body, and community to “collaboratively engage in purposeful critical discourse and reflection to construct personal meaning and confirm mutual understanding.”

Purposeful Critical Discourse. I like it!

The CoI theoretical framework advances three educational process elements:

  • Social Presence – Social presence involves open communication, affective expression, and group cohesion. Social presence theory not only studies how social cues are transmitted, but also how desirable personal, social, and psychological traits facilitate building trust.
  • Teaching Presence – the design, facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the realization of meaningful learning. This involves the (1) instructional design and organization of the course and activities, (2) facilitation of the course and activities, and (3) direct instruction.
  • Cognitive Presence – the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning through sustained reflection and discourse.

The ultimate goal of the Community of Inquiry is to build a solid foundation of social presence and teaching presence to stimulate cognitive presence in a course. Purdue University

The Community of Inquiry

According to research, there is a relationship between the three presences and students’ perceived learning, satisfaction with the course, satisfaction with the instructor, actual learning, and sense of belonging. Akyol & Garrison, 2008; Arbaugh, 2008; Richardson, et. al., 2017. Though these studies have only focused on the community of inquiry in online learning, especially helpful during the COVID-19 online teaching norm, the principles would bear fruit in traditional classrooms. For example, mindfulness to social presence should influence how we use and ask students to use technology during in-person class time; can we maximize social presence if the lecture relies entirely on a PowerPoint presentation while students are buried in their laptops?

There is room and need to expand the model, given the current health crisis and astounding technological innovations. As Terry Anderson explained,

The march of progress over the past two decades has also seen the call for additional ‘presences’ with a goal of more completely describing the educational experience. These include vicarious presence (Sutton, 2001), emotional presence (Cleveland-Innes & Campbell, 2012) and autonomy presence (Lam, 2015). There have been efforts to expand the social presence category in the COI model (especially for application in blended contexts) to include affective association, emotional presence, community cohesion, instructor involvement, interaction intensity, and knowledge and experience (Whiteside, 2015). I would argue that each of these already exists in the original model, but further definition helps focus on particular salient components of social presence.

None of these proposed additions has received wide adoption and there is certainly something to be said for the parsimonious advantage of only three presences.

Terry Anderson 

I am excited to explore the Community of Inquiry model in the legal skills classroom, and I suspect more of us use this approach without labeling it. If you’re using the CoI framework or some variation thereof, I’d love to chat with you about it.

Check out this CoI survey that could serve as a guide for course development.

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